Skiing in the Franco-Swiss Alps
Visiting the Portes du Soleil, a traditional cosy village.
Chatel - It's hard to resist a feeling of superhuman grandeur when you stand perched over an ocean of fresh snow watching the sun creep over the Dents du Midi (the 'Teeth of the South'), a wolf's jaw of jagged peaks soaring 10,000 feet (3,250 metres) from the valley below.
Such a vision of natural splendor is enough to inspire you to turn your skis toward the black slope they call Le Corbeau ('The Crow') and flash down its near-vertical mogul field in a display of downhill daring-do.
Or perhaps not.
The alternative is a gentle incline crossing the invisible frontier from France into Switzerland, where the patrons of the Chalet Neuf cafe provide a hot spiced-wine welcome while you contemplate how next to avoid any death-defying antics on your winter holiday. Whether you're a manic mountain thrill seeker or a mild-mannered slider who views skiing as an excuse to enjoy fresh air, spectacular scenery and hearty Alpine cuisine, it would be hard not to find what you're looking for in the Portes du Soleil.
This vast winter sports playground rises above the south bank of Lake Geneva with 400 miles (650 kilometres) of interconnected ski slopes. The 'gates of sunshine' ski area straddles two countries, 12 resorts and 266 pistes, ranging from gentle descents through forests of spruce and fir, to fearsome plunges like La Chavanette, one of the most challenging runs in the Alps.
Chatel sits in the center of the Portes du Soleil, a village that collects epithets the way skiers collect bruises. "The charming village side of the Alps", "the most Swiss of French resorts", "where Swiss style meets the French touch", "a family-plus mountain resort", are some of the slogans adopted by this cosy collection of wooden chalets nestled in the slopes of the aptly named Abondance valley.
While some French ski centres, purpose-built in the 1960s and '70s, have all the concrete charm of the Parisian high-rise suburbs flung up at the same time, Chatel has fought to maintain its Alpine village ambiance. Although it's no longer the remote scattering of mountain farms shown in photos pre-dating the opening of the first ski-lift in 1947, the hotels, vacation homes and apartments that now cluster around the little stone church strive to replicate the traditional rural architecture. The hillsides are covered with facades decorated with intricately carved balconies and gently pitched roofs built to hold a thick blanket of insulating snow.
You can tell Chatel is more than just a ski resort from the unmistakable whiff of manure that occasionally permeates that pure Alpine air. The village boasts 30 working dairy farms producing 20-pound (10 kilograms) wheels of primrose-colored cheese based on a recipe first developed in the 14th century by monks who built the monastery a few kilometres down the twisting valley road in the village of Abondance.
The cheese that carries the Abondance name is now one of 44 fromages protected by the French state. By law, it is made only in the valleys around here using time-honoured methods.
Chatel may fill in the winter with a peacock-hued parade of city-slicker skiers clad in fluorescent jumpsuits, but life for the local farmers remains dominated by the rhythms of an ancient time.
Many still share their hulking chalets with the herds of chestnut-and-white cattle, with the cowshed on the ground floor, family quarters above and hay stored in the loft. The heavy brass cowbells hanging outside many of the farms are not for decoration. Around May, the cheesemakers move their cows up into the mountains to feed on the Alpine flower meadows and the bells help to locate the herd. The farming families have second chalets high in the hills to spend the snow-free months with their cattle.
The Chatel tourist board organises regular farm visits to sample the cheese with fresh bread, sliced local sausage and crisp white wines like Marin and Crepy made by the shores of Lake Geneva, just a 40-minute drive away down the precipitous mountain road. Reinforcing Chatel's village atmosphere, little delis selling traditional farm products compete with ski-gear stores on the village's three main streets. A score of restaurants offer fondues and other hot cheese specialties. Dished up in a mountain inn, the berthoud — a concoction of Abondance cheese melted with garlic and wine and served with boiled potatoes — can be just the thing to recharge the batteries in the middle of a hard day on the pistes.
There are two cinemas, a couple of pubs and a handful of boutiques, some offering clothes spun from local wool, traditional pottery or woodwork, but Chatel is not really the place to come for chic shopping or wild apres-ski nightlife.
Instead alternatives to downhill include cross-country skiing, snowshoe wildlife walks to search for chamois, mouflons or marmots, skating and ice-fishing at Lake Vonne, or even scuba diving under the frozen surface of the little mountain pond.
For more highbrow pursuits, it's easy to combine a mountain holiday with cultural attractions like the renowned Gianadda Foundation art gallery in Martigny on the Swiss side of the valley, which in 2009 plans major exhibitions of work by the French sculptor Rodin and a selection of modern masterpieces from Moscow's Pushkin Museum.
On the French bank of Lake Geneva are the turn-of-the century spa resorts of Thonon-les-Bains and Evian. From there, steamers cross the lake to the old Swiss city of Lausanne, headquarters of the Olympic movement. Geneva is just over an hour's drive along the lakeside.
Heading south, it's 90 minutes to Italy through the historic Great St Bernard Pass, where travelers can stay in the medieval hospice over 8,000 feet (2,470 metres) up in the mountains, which was the original home of the mighty St Bernard mountain rescue dogs.
In the summer, hiking replaces skiing in Chatel and the towns down on the Lake Geneva riviera fill with sun-seekers. Around Easter, hardy souls will even combine a morning on the ski slopes with a bracing plunge into the lake. For a more relaxing alternative, there's always an apres-ski trip to the thermal baths at the Swiss village of Val d'Illiez, or just another glass of that mulled wine.
If You Go ...
GETTING THERE: Geneva is the closest airport to the Portes de Soleil, a 90-minute drive from Chatel. Buses run twice a day, a little over two hours from the airport to Chatel at EUR 58 (CHF 86) return, http://www.gva.ch. High-speed trains take around 4 1/2 hours from Paris to Thonon-les-Bains, with return tickets from less than EUR 70 if you book in advance, http://www.sncf.com. Buses link the railroad station at Thonon with Chatel, single tickets cost around EUR 10, http://www.sat-autocars.com. Within Chatel, a free shuttle bus operates between various ski lifts running up to the slopes.
ON THE SLOPES: A one-day ski pass for the whole Portes du Soleil area costs EUR 39, a six-day pass is EUR 200. A more limited pass covering just the slopes around Chatel village costs EUR 31.50 a day or EUR 144 for six days. Expect to pay at least EUR 14-a-day for hire of skis, boots and sticks form one of the many rental shops in the village. Chatel prides itself on being a family friendly resort with several ski schools for kids and adults including classes in English. Check with the tourist office, http://www.chatel.com.
ACCOMMODATION: The Chatel tourism office runs a central booking service for hotels, apartments and chalets, http://www.chateltour.com. Be prepared to pay at least EUR 560 per week for a two-room apartment during the French school holidays in February, although prices can fall by half outside high season. There are several chalet-style hotels offering cozy comforts. Top of the range is the Hotel Macchi with rooms from EUR 140 in winter, much less in summer, http://www.hotelmacchi.com.
DINING: Chatel and the other villages are packed with simple restaurants offering traditional dishes from the Savoy region. They give pride of place to local cheeses. Reliable options include Le Kandahar, Le Tartiflette and Restaurant de Loy. There are also chalet restaurants serving similar treats up on the slopes. Le Chalet Neuf on the Swiss side is renowned for its hearty chicken and vegetable soup and La Terrasse du Morclan does a mean blueberry pie. For more refined dining, Les Cornettes in the neighboring village of La Chapelle d'Abondance is justly reputed.
Paul Ames / AP / Expatica